Providence Journal: At-risk veterans receive care at annual tent city in Cumberland

<span style="color: #2a3238;">Some 500 veterans attended the Operation Stand Down/Rhode Island outreach event at Diamond Hill State Park.</span>

By Amanda Milkovitz / Journal Staff Writer

Posted Sep 16, 2017 at 9:58 PM

Updated Sep 16, 2017 at 9:58 PM

Some 500 veterans attended the Operation Stand Down/Rhode Island outreach event at Diamond Hill State Park.

CUMBERLAND, R.I. — They served their country — some decades ago, some just recently, and some who deployed again and again.

And when they returned, some of them disappeared into the shadows of society and ended up on the streets, struggling and feeling forgotten by a public that claims to honor its veterans.

This is what three Vietnam veterans from Rhode Island — Tony DeQuattro, Robert O'Connor and Jack Ordner — saw happening to fellow servicemen and women decades ago. And, DeQuattro said Saturday, he was tired of waiting for the government to help.

So, 25 years ago, the three men held the first Operation Stand Down/Rhode Island outreach event. They set up a military-style tent city at the old Ladd School, in Exeter, and bused in homeless and at-risk veterans to spend the weekend, getting free medical and legal care, haircuts, and services from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Forty veterans came to that first event.

This weekend, it was more like 500. And at Diamond Hill State Park, where the event has been held for the last 23 years, the number of volunteers and services have also expanded to help homeless veterans.

RIPTA and shuttle buses brought in veterans from all across the state. The District Court and Traffic Tribunal set up tents to help veterans deal with court costs, expungements and traffic violations, while the state Department of Motor Vehicles assisted them with reinstating licenses. Veterans could get haircuts, dental care, medical and mental health services, check if they have unclaimed property, and pick up clothing.

Gov. Gina Raimondo, U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Brig. Gen. Christopher P. Callahan of the R.I. National Guard and other Rhode Island dignitaries served meals. The veterans slept on fresh bedding and cots in tents named for fallen Rhode Island servicemen and women. Rhode Island motorcycle clubs provided security; most have members who are veterans.

The setting was meant to invoke memories of their military service, when they were treated with dignity and respect. In military terms, “stand down” means safety and rest.

Over the last 25 years, the need hasn't changed, DeQuattro said. If anything, it's grown with each new war.

So has Operation Stand Down/Rhode Island. The nonprofit organization now helps about 2,000 homeless and at-risk veterans find housing, employment and help with veterans benefits year-round.

DeQuattro's youngest daughter, Dee DeQuattro Rothermel, was only 4 years old when it started, and she remembers playing with other children who came with their veteran parents. She realized as she grew older that those families were probably homeless.

Now communications and development director for Operation Stand Down, DeQuattro Rothermel said the event is still a family affair. She met her husband, David Rothermel, a Marine, when he arrived at an outreach seven years ago and asked to volunteer. The couple came up with the “Boots on the Ground” memorial two years ago, as a way to honor the fallen.

“My dad is very modest, but it's a huge thing that he started 25 years ago,” she said. “We're proud of him. It's an accomplishment.”

DeQuattro spoke to the gathering of veterans at a ceremony Saturday afternoon.

“I do it because God told me to,” DeQuattro told them, “and because we have to take care of our brothers and sisters.”

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